The Best Songs of 2020 (So Far)
The best of the best bangers.
The sheer number of songs released each year has become so staggering, what with all the one-off singles and album tracks, that finding new music has grown increasingly difficult. That's where our list of the the best songs of the year comes in. We scour the output of major and up-and-coming artists and filter it all down to this frequently updated playlist of absolute jams. Enjoy!
"Lifeline," A.G. Cook
A.G. Cook has had a big year. The 2010s were also big for him, as he founded the pop collective/experimental label PC Music in 2013 and released some of the records beloved by arty, weirdo pop communities like works from Charli XCX, SOPHIE, and others. 2020 was his year, though, as he finally released a ton of music under his own name, including a four disc album and a more traditional LP, Apple. That doesn't mean it sounds traditional, though: "Lifeline" wraps up Apple and is a genre-less hodgepodge of pop perfection. Repeating the melodramatic verse "You are my lifeline" in altered vocals over a dark, kinetic beat, the track could easily pass for the remix of a Myspace pop-punk band's hit single. The producer is a master at his craft, and making it weirder and more interesting than the rest in the game.
On his Limbo track "Woodlawn," rapper Aminé declares he's come "along way from that Woodlawn Park," or the Portland neighborhood he grew up in with his Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrant family. Considering he sounds like a blazing star on the stylish, breezy song, his assessment isn't far off. It's not just that the track has a certain swagger that highlights his ability to deliver rhymes that are as witty as they are sexy, it really is a sharp homage to where he's been and where he's going. Referencing Kobe Bryant's death as a reckoning as his own coming-of-age, the fact that he's helping out his mom with rent and played the track through the phone to his friend who's incarcerated, that Woodlawn Park is still a part of him even if he's driving past it in his new fancy car.
"Watch," Arca, Shygirl
Venezuelan experimentalist producer Arca's songs don't always sound like songs. Instead the FKA Twigs and Kanye-approved collaborator makes what can only be described as avant garde sonic booms. With that in mind, you can guess her take on the party track is a bit unconventional -- but it gets the job done, amping up the rager even more so -- like her KiCK i song with London-based singer/producer Shygirl, "Watch." Maximalist and jittery, with Shygirl exuding a coolness, repeating "I'm too hot for the night," it's a blitz of everything that a club night should be: flirtatious, flashy, and wild.
"Safaera," Bad Bunny (feat. Jowell & Randy, Nengo Flow)
Puerto Rican trap artist Bad Bunny has become one of the most promising superstars (and the biggest sweetheart) across the globe. He's gone from go-to featured artist on tracks to releasing three great LPs in less than two years, including his recent YHLQMDLG, which he announced just a day before its Leap Day drop on The Tonight Show where he spoke out about trans rights. His 2018 debut X100PRE may have been an evocative statement piece, but YHLQMDLG is a rager through and through. "Safaera" is one of the many fine examples of this, and shows what the Latin innovator is capable of. He pulls together a roster of fellow Puerto Rican rappers and lights up an intense, smoky production based around a meandering Missy Elliot sample. You can just tell there's nothing like a party hosted by Conejo Malo.
"Mustang," Bartees Strange
For some, the urge to escape your hometown -- to get out of there as fast as you can and never turn back -- is overwhelming, and eventually it propels you the hell out of there. No song captures that energy as much as alternative artist Bartees Strange's "Mustang," about his feelings towards Mustang, Oklahoma, the town where he spent much of his youth and was one of the few Black residents. It's arena rock that's unlike anything you've ever heard, his smoky voice a surprisingly excellent pairing for both the track's emo guitars and '80s synths. It's bursting with his anger at a place that boxed him in and held him back, but one listen and there's no doubt that this original talent was ever going to stay stuck.
"Rearview," Beach Bunny
Emerging Chicago band Beach Bunny is the former bedroom project of frontwoman Lili Trifilio, and recently they blew up, finding success on TikTok. If you're familiar with the group, this shouldn't come as a surprise because their emo power pop is full of exhilarating melodies and lyrics that examine the pressures of girlhood. Their debut album Honeymoon dropped this year, and while it's mostly pure, assured love songs, one of its best tracks is the stripped back "Rearview." Over a guitar that flutters like heart palpitations, Trifilio reflects on how she was made to feel less than in a now defunct relationship. It's as if she's regretfully realizing her heart is still in it -- and the way she delivers these words in mourning nearly destroys you. (That catch in her voice when she sings, "You loved me / I love you / You don't love me anymore / I still do," is too damn much!). You can picture her monologuing these words to herself in the mirror, and losing herself to a fit of rage as the song ends in a raucous bout of exuberance. We all know and can feel these emotions.
"Fuck The World (Summer in London)," Brent Faiyaz
R&B has a long history of exploring romance, intimacy, and desire. There's definitely a new class of young R&B crooners today, but in singing about love they're also now tasked with covering messy millennial dating politics like being left on read. Singer Brent Faiyaz is one of the best of this kind: His milky voice will make you swoon while he delivers brutally blunt lines about his sex life and crave for connection. The title track from his latest album, Fuck the World, smolders with hazy, echoic vocals as the singer lays out his innermost desires. The production is immaculate, slowing down his voice, which relays thoughts so honest they read like posts you might find on an Instagram account meant to shade shitty fuck boys by posting screenshots of the texts they send. It's a masterclass in R&B for 2020.
"Deadlines (Thoughtful)," Car Seat Headrest
Almost every relationship chronicled in a Car Seat Headrest song seems doomed to fail. But, hey, there's a reason frontman Will Toledo has become indie rock's golden boy representing sad people everywhere. Bleak as his music may be, he's able to make something immensely poignant out of that despair. The Making a Door Less Open track "Deadlines (Thoughtful)" is yet another song from the band about a love that's tempting but forbidden, and wanting to succumb to it just once. Toledo's stammering in the chorus ("Am I, am I, am I, am I on your mind") and the crisp, cumulative percussion is erratic and explosive, just like his distress that won't subside.
"Anthems," Charli XCX
Charli XCX is at the peak of her energy on the intro of her raging song "Anthem" -- which may as well be the anthem of 2020. It's conceived of the moment, being one of the songs off her amazing quarantine album How I'm Feeling Now -- which was written and recorded over six weeks during the coronavirus pandemic -- and sounds as perfect as experimental pop today could be. Over a joyful DIY gem of an electronic beat, she drones on about the mundane activities that occupy her lockdown ("Wake up late, eat some cereal / Try my best to be physical / Lose myself in a TV show"), before conceding to feelings of loneliness and shamelessly just wanting to see her friends and get shitfaced. In many ways, it's how many of us are feeling. But bless Charli for giving us a goddamn jam where we can feel it all, and for a brief moment envision ourselves back on that sweaty dance floor she's yearning for.
"Gaslighter," The Chicks
In 2003, America doused then-reigning country stars The Chicks (nee Dixie) in kerosene and said good riddance after they came out against George Bush and the Iraq war. Conservatives basically gaslit them, one of the few women-led country groups at the time, into obscurity. While they continued making music for some time, followed by a hiatus, they eventually rose from the ashes and returned this year with the angry, uplifting "Gaslighter." Not only is it reassuring to hear from Natalie Maines, Martie Erwin Maguire, and Emily Strayer again, the song radiates a hopeful warmth in the face of adversity. Years ago they were "Not Ready to Make Nice," and bless them for sticking to their guns, because now with lyrics like, "Gaslighter, you broke me / You're sorry, but where's my apology? / Gaslighter, you liar," they're offering up a much-needed anthem of righteous catharsis.
"Baby Girl," Chloe x Halle
"Do it for the girls," Chloe x Halle sing on their Ungodly Hour track "Baby Girl." And, well, the R&B sister duo did it for the girls -- doing what they had to do, as they say -- with this empowerment anthem. The emerging stars have long had their names attached to their collaborators -- and for good reason, they were discovered by Beyoncé -- but their independent talent cannot be ignored. Chloe produced the song herself, creating a chic take on the night out song that manages to bubble like the champagne you imagine popping while celebrating with friends. Their complimentary duet expresses that while it may be intimidating once you're grown, ultimately, "it's your world." It's a sweet, uplifting track, and their angelic voices cradle you into believing the world can be as full of love as they see it.
"People, I've been sad," Christine and the Queens
"You know the feeling" -- being sad, that is, as Héloïse Letissier (a.k.a. Christine and the Queens) sings on her new song "People, I've been sad." The English/French electro pop song dissects the emotion and how she's been there "for way too long," while thoughtfully parsing apart how she's also retreated to ennui like an attraction she can't help. It's a stunning release from the French experimentalist, and the production is just as striking as the lyrics. The gentle strings in combination with the atmospheric drum machine create a place of isolation that's both icy and comfortable, like the cold familiarity of slipping back into a depressive episode. We hope one of the most creative indie pop acts today isn't sad anymore, but you can hear in the way her voice reaches that she's offering reassurance she's right here with you when you're down.
"Physical," Dua Lipa
It seems like Dua Lipa wants to imagine what might play at Studio 54 if it were still open, or offer up something to flood the speakers at a roller rink in 2020. For pop fans, it's been interesting watching how the British singer fits into the pop landscape with her dark dance music (that's certainly experimental but not super out there either) -- but now that her trajectory has turned to straight-up disco music, she's sparkling on her own like a disco ball. "Physical," one of the many great songs from her fantastic Future Nostalgia, is a dance floor opus. Her smoky voice is commanding, telling you to "get physical," and the pulsating beat is incredibly stylish; this is no Olivia Newton John workout track.
"Marigolds," Early Eyes
Everyone could use a pick-me-up right now, and no band is better to do it than Minneapolis-based indie pop band Early Eyes. The up-and-coming five-piece is a bundle of joy whose jazz-influenced songs have given their local scene something to boogie to, and now with the release of "Marigolds," they should absolutely be on your radar, too. The upbeat song laced with horns and nimble bass and percussion follows vocalist Jake Berglove's ponderous fumbling in how to "feel okay." It's never an easy journey to come into your own and "nobody does this gracefully," but Early Eyes has the ability to make you feel like if you just loosened up a bit, it'd be a piece of cake.
"Heavy Balloon," Fiona Apple
When Fiona Apple won the VMA for Best New Artist in 1997, she declared the world was bullshit in her acceptance speech. The memorable rant shook audiences at the time, but it turns out that she wasn't totally wrong; it just took time for everybody else to face that realization. Over 20 years later, and after an eight-year hiatus, the famed singer-songwriter still sees the toughness of life and womanhood, and the way she sings about them on her acclaimed Fetch the Bolt Cutters is as raw as ever. One of its stand-out tracks, "Heavy Balloon," is about battling depression and how unyielding it can feel to try to lift yourself up while feeling pushed down time and time again. The sparse yet resounding percussion makes the song itself feel weighted, and, boy, does she sound angry when she sings, "I spread like strawberries / I climb like peas and beans / I've been sucking it in so long / That I'm bursting at the seams," but only because she's still willing to face those set backs head on. It's something of an inspiration.
"In The Party," Flo Milli
It should come as no surprise that this song from 20-year-old Alabama rapper Flo Milli, which actually dropped in 2019 before it was officially released on this year's Ho, why is you here?, was a smash on TikTok. It's all about playing with the idea of having a bad bitch attitude and running with it -- and starting off with the line, "Dicks up when I step in the party," only to up the ante even more after it, the up-and-comer definitely delivers that surefire confidence that makes you do a double take and believe in her power to take anyone's man. This is no viral one-hit-wonder, though. You can hear in bars, or what she calls "Flo Milli shit," that she's fearless in what she does and just getting the party started on what's likely to be a hell of a no-fucks-given good time.
"Dear April (Side A - Acoustic)," Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean releases music on his own terms… because he's Frank Ocean, one of music's current greats. His latest release "Dear April" is one of two singles that actually debuted last fall when he played them at one of his LGBTQ+ parties, PrEP+, in NYC, and then obsessives were able to get their hands on them by ordering a copy on vinyl. After months, "Dear April," which is a sprawling, powerhouse of an acoustic ballad, is finally available on streaming. Joined by tranquil synthesizers and an organ, the R&B singer pours his heart out to a lover, reassuring them that while their relationship is coming to an end, they made each other stronger because of it ("Like you took these strangers and our two strange lives / and made us new / and took us through it / and woke us up"). Like all of the best Frank Ocean songs, it's tenderly somber, but his serene voice has an ability to make even sad moments feel full of lightness.
"Solitaires (feat. Travis Scott)," Future
The title of his surprise 21-track epic says it all: Trap star Future is High Off Life. Even amidst the dumpster fire that is 2020, the guy can't complain, boasting about his lavish lifestyle with Travis Scott on his album stand-out "Solitaires." In fact, not even the pandemic can hold him down, name-dropping the coronavirus on the track! For three-and-a-half minutes, the Wizrd puts you in a trance and lets you revel in that luxury, with the mellow beat and his and Scott's droning taking you there. Like his "solitary diamonds, solitary jewels," it's a shining little gem and a welcomed outlook from the rapper who essentially paved the way for depressing trap. Certainly, it makes that case that, yeah, quarantine wouldn't be so bad if you were one of the biggest rappers in the world.
"My Name is Dark - Art Mix," Grimes
It's become almost frightening to listen to Grimes' end of the world masterpiece Miss Anthropocene since it was released in February, considering it dropped just a month out from when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US, which in many ways does eerily feel like the end. Songs like "My Name is Dark," which play into the album's concept of succumbing to AI technology and letting the world go up in flames, feel especially dark -- but it's just that much more potent. Drawing from nu metal, the screams and screeches in the song's production sound like the final moments of some sort of annihilation, and Grimes' girlish voice tricks you into thinking this is a fun pop song when she's really relaying snarky remarks from our new overlords (or whatever). There's a part where she hisses, "The angel of death, she said to God, 'Un-fuck the world, un-fuck the world, you stupid girl," and Grimes and her AI persona WarNymph make that rally cry in the song pretty damn convincing.
"I Know Alone," HAIM
HAIM doesn't necessarily sound like the HAIM we've grown to love on their latest single off their long-awaited Women in Music Pt. III. On the track, the sister trio exchanges funk for dance to create one of their most electronica-heavy songs ever. The production is spritely and scattered, bouncing manically in opposition to the lyrics that delicately detail an all-consuming loneliness ("I know alone like no one else does"). It may seem dismal, but the hushed way Danielle relays her words paired with the playful production invites one to think that the song could also be about finding comfort in how we each cope -- because, in truth, we all "know alone" in one way or another. As many of us are isolated right now, dealing with the current crisis on our own, it's the perfect song to illuminate some sort of goodness that's to come.
"Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris," Hayley Williams (feat. Boy Genius)
When Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams announced her debut solo album Petals for Armor, it was highly anticipated enough as is. Then earlier this month she announced it includes a collaboration with boygenius, the supergroup from Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus -- and the buzz grew even louder. The result might not be what you'd expect from either artist, but is somehow even more beautiful. The gentle song uses a garden as a metaphor for femininity -- both how lovely it can be and the way it can be picked apart -- and through gorgeous harmonies and the way its strings crescendo, it manages to capture the understated strength of something that's soft. Before the track flutters out, Williams sings, "I myself was a wilted woman, drowsy in a dark room / Forgot my roots, now watch me bloom." "Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris" is proof she's already flowered.
"Good Bad Times," Hinds
The latest from Spanish four-piece Hinds may be about "bad times," but it's a swaying pop song that actually sounds like a lovely time. It's a dichotomy the extremely charismatic indie rock band has mastered, making loud, buoyant garage music that's often about loneliness and anxiety. "Good Bad Times," from the upcoming The Prettiest Curse (out June 5), sees them move towards funky indie pop as they incorporate lush synths and glossy guitars, arriving at a chorus of their voices echoing one another, pining for something more. It slips in between English and Spanish, like how the song itself is a back-and-forth in a relationship that might not be as ideal as it seems. It's the kind of glistening number you should twirl around to once you take off those rose-colored shades yourself and need a little pick-me-up.
"Sword," IAN SWEET
"Sword" is a shimmering dream-pop song oozing with lavish synths, but it cuts like a knife -- and, boy, does it cut deep. On the song from IAN SWEET, the LA-by-way-of-Boston group, singer Jilian Medford comes to realize that her body is autonomous and strong, after being led to believe it was something she needed to fight against ("How do I start to feel less like a deadly weapon / After you made me believe / I have the sharpest edges"). "My body is a sword, it gets sharper when it gets ignored," she repeats. It may be less rock influenced than the indie group's past releases, but it's got a razor-sharp edge in its vulnerability.
"Ghost of Soulja Slim," Jay Electronica
Few fans are as faithful as Jay Electronica's. The New Orleans-based MC and J Dilla collaborator has been abuzz and supported by JAY-Z ever since he dropped a mixtape on MySpace in 2007, but never got around to releasing an official record until this year's A Written Testimony. It makes sense that fans would hold out for Electronica since he's proven to be one of rap's most overlooked greats, but it's funny that they kept their faith considering much of his record is powered by rhymes about his own religion. One of the album's most impeccable songs, "Ghosts of Soulja Slim," is a joint with JAY and explores the relationship between Electronica's identity and Islam. Each bar is more impressive than the next ("My ancestors took old food, made soul food / Jim Crow's a troll too, he stole the soul music / That's the blood that goes through me, so you assumin' / I could never sell my soul, they sold they soul to me") as the two rappers illustrate their lexical deftness and depth of soul.
"House Warning Party," Joyce Manor
This song from beloved pop-punk mainstays Joyce Manor isn't necessarily new. It's actually quite old, being a more than 10-year-old fan favorite that the group sometimes roars out at live gigs to open up the pit. The oldie had yet to be officially released until this year, though, on a compilation of old recordings made new. It just passes the one-minute mark (typical for the band), but bursting with the energy of the group when they were young punks still playing house shows across Southern California. With lines like, "Your dad was a cop / I bet his dad was a cop / Yeah, but you're no cop, you see / No, to me you are the Great Wall of China," and raging guitars, it's like an anarchist teenage dream. Even as the band and their fanbase ages, we could all use that unrestrained energy.
The Bay Area has a rich history of great rappers -- Tupac, E-40, Too $hort, etc. Kamaiyah's got to be the next of this class: Her bass-heavy, trunk-rattling beats and melodic, confident delivery recall the great bangers of the past while still pushing toward the future. Labels previously paired her up with big names like Quavo for singles, but on her latest mixtape Got It Made she's solo for the most part, again proving she can stand on her own. The stand-out track "Pressure" references her banking on herself when the industry wouldn't, and stands on its own as a self-esteem boosting anthem. The production bumps, elevating her brash, clever bars. She says it herself, "I'm the motherfucking queen of this West side shit."
R&B artist Kehlani has been the center of media frenzies for dating basketball stars like Kyrie Irving and being cheated on by major rappers like YG, but don't let that distract you from her sad, sexy songs about heartbreak. The opener of her star-making record It Was Good Until It Wasn't is called "Toxic," a word people tend to throw around when talking about both truly unhealthy circumstances and relationships gone sour that might've benefited from a little self-reflection. It's something Kehlani recognizes, bringing heaps of vulnerability to this stripped-back song, looking to herself and her lover's manipulation as to why she needs to sober up from a relationship that was clouded by Don Julio and sex. It doesn't glorify the toxicity, though, those 808s and the sound of her voice mixed with Ty Dolla $ign's are full of wallowing. The transparency of her lyrics are so potent, she'll have you grieving too.
"Leader of the Delinquents," Kid Cudi
"Hello friends, Cudder again / Gotta smack 'em with some shit before the world ends," cult rapper Kid Cudi raps to introduce his first release since 2018. The verse and song itself actually originate all the way back from 2012, but its irony undeniably hits harder in 2020 -- and it's never felt like a better time to hear from rap's perennial voice on advocating for mental health. It's unclear how much the track has changed from its original version, but it's certainly a return to form for the artist, dropping the melodic style that made him beloved by stoners, indie kids, and rap fans alike for a strict straight flow of bars over simple '80s West Coast rap production. Here he's returning to his throne, crowing himself the "Leader of Delinquents," and his flow that reflects on how his mental state has affected his career and resonated with fans will convince you to join his charge if you haven't already.
"Rain On Me," Lady Gaga
Could there be a more perfect pop pairing than Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande? Their collab, "Rain On Me," for Gaga's long-awaited return to dance pop Chromatica, is almost reason for any duets in the works to be scrapped because no one will be able to top this. While the two occupy different lanes of pop, they're longtime admirers of each other's work, two of the biggest divas in the game, and known forces of good -- meaning, the result is obviously a delightful rhapsody about persevering through personal hardship ("I'd rather be dry, but at least I'm alive"). Gaga collaborator and major producer BloodPop sprinkles down a dance track that eventually hits like lightning, and their two voices are the claps of thunder. There's no way Ari and Gaga's joy won't wash over you too.
"Nada," Lido Pimienta
On "Nada," Canadian-Colombian singer Lido Pimienta sings, "Soy mujer y llevo, el dolor adentro" ("I'm a woman and carrying pain is what I do"). The lyric could take you out with the punch of its vigor. The succinct line encapsulates something all too familiar for women, and on the transfixing song that pulls from indigenous elements, the rising Latin star couldn't have articulated these feelings better. Backed by the layered production, it's as if generations that came before her support her as she confidently iterates how fearless she is. There's a beauty in her confrontation.
"I'm Sorry," Lil Uzi Vert
Lil Uzi Vert's spaceship has officially blasted off. The hardcore-influenced, anime-loving rapper's sci-fi-themed sophomore album Eternal Atake arrived with an early, surprise release in March -- dodging meteorites of label disputes and personal delays to finally satellite this bizarro rap to patient fans down on Earth. One of the muted numbers on the record, "I'm Sorry," runs in a different lane than usual, but it's a sweet rap ballad that sees the hip-hop artist as a boy band heartthrob worth falling for. His typically quick bars are turned into a sing-song rasp as he sincerely apologizes to all the pain he's caused a lover; so figure it's destined to become a sad boy anthem. Utilizing scattered but subtle video game music-inspired production, it's a song that sounds like it was meant to soundtrack a fan-made compilation of clips from a romance anime, and that's a very good thing.
"Good News," Mac Miller
Late indie rap champion Mac Miller's first posthumous release "Good News" arrived early in 2020, about a year and a half since the recording artist unexpectedly died of a drug overdose at 26-years-old in 2018. Off his record Circles, the song is a quieted pondering of trying to relieve himself of negativity, delivered in the flavor of his early discography's lo-fi sound. It feels particularly somber now, knowing the artist was continually searching for a remedy to his sadness. With its minimal but gentle qualities and Miller's familiar sing-song rasp, the song sounds like the goodness he was looking for.
"B.I.T.C.H.," Megan Thee Stallion
In the same way that she's brazen and unfiltered about just about everything else, Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion puts misogyny in its place on her new song "B.I.T.C.H.," reclaiming the loaded word as her title. The song is the lead single from her debut album Suga, and it's blazing and sassy with a Tupac sample that slowly sizzles as she delivers bars like, "I'd rather be a B-I-T-C-H / 'Cause that's what you gon' call me when I'm trippin' anyway." The recording artist blew up in 2019 with hit songs off her project Fever and created the internet phenom "Hot Girl Summer," and with her killer bars that relay her standards for a relationship, she proves she's carrying that energy into 2020. As Meg would say, this is "real hot girl shit," as per usual.
"Savage (Remix)," Megan Thee Stallion feat. Beyoncé
When the opportunity arises, Beyoncé loves to flex how good she is at rapping. While Queen Bey may not be a rapper first and foremost, she is Queen Bey and can definitely spit some bars whenever she sees fit -- like on the remix of Megan Thee Stallion's (soon-to-be even more massive) hit "Savage." The release itself was a delightful surprise, but what's even more unexpected is how the two flip the song entirely instead of just adding a verse here or there. The simple piano beat remains the same, but the result of the two Houston icons joining forces is pure bliss as Bey hops back on the rap saddle to deliver some confident, streamlined verses. At once point she touts, "I'm a bad bitch, she's a savage, no comparison here," and it's true -- together they sound free to be feeling themselves, and invite you to do the same.
"Fall in Love," Moaning
Falling for someone is terrifying. It's called falling for a reason: opening yourself up to someone else and the fear of what could or could not be can feel like pummelling through space without the security of a safe landing. LA DIY scene staples Moaning sweetly ponder this on their song "Fall in Love" off this year's Uneasy Laughter. They earnestly ask, "Am I loveless? / Or just fearful? / Do I want this or should I carry on? / How do you carry on?" over repetitive, militaristic drums and a dreamy arrangement of lucid keys and guitars. The trio crafts incredibly anxious post-punk songs, but where their great, understated debut carried a concerned sense of urgency, that jittery energy has turned into an embrace of vulnerability. This song has the ecstasy of a new wave hit, and makes you believe it's okay to take that jump. You won't always crash down.
"Bless Me," Moses Sumney
On the elegant, expansive "Bless Me" off his double album græ, stylish North Carolina singer-songwriter Moses Sumney manages to bless each one of us. The track is sparse with glittering percussion to allow the real godly quality of his sound, his magnificent voice, to reach ethereal heights. About his relationship being through with someone who was somewhat of an angel, the way the song crescendos to sound like a sprawling opus of their time spent together. "You're going nowhere with me," he repeats -- and who knows where that is for each party involved, but his loving voice makes you believe it will still be somewhere beautiful. He may be singing of an ending, but the song exalts hope.
"I Am King," Nasty Cherry
Nasty Cherry is the pet project of British pop star Charli XCX, who essentially manufactured the band by hand-picking the four women in the group who she now mentors and houses on her label. One of Charli's frequent collaborators, Dylan Brady of experimental electronic group 100 Gecs, hops on as producer to utterly blow out this pop rock track in a way that only his frantic, computerized production can and turn it into a jam about, well, getting yourself off ("I'm addicted, hooked on it when I touch myself"). Based around a blaring guitar riff you could imagine obliterating your ears live and vocalist Gabbriette Bechtel's high-pitched bubblegum voice unassumingly singing vulgar lyrics, "I Am King" is like the OG '70s rock girl group The Runaways meets something off the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack, ie. it's a blast.
"Me & You Together Song," The 1975
You know those songs that immediately make your mind "cut to" a sequence of memories or even a daydream of what-could-bes that play like a film reel? Well, if there ever was a song to accompany a treacly compilation of clips of a couple being in love at a carnival, running through city streets, and laying in parks, it would be British alt rock band The 1975's song from their 2020 album Notes on a Conditional Form. "Me & You Together Song" takes you there in its '90s pop rock guitars and the looped vocals of frontman Matty Healy singing, "I've been in love with her for ages." The song sounds like a fantasy -- because it is, chronicling a relationship of unrequited love with a friend -- but Healy's mindless lulling and the sparkling production lets you live there.
"On the Floor," Perfume Genius
Having a crush can be agonizing: The yearning, the projecting, the impatience. All of that anguish is the subject of indie pop artist Perfume Genius's latest single, taking the form of a dancey bop. On the song off his Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, Mike Hadreas, the brainchild behind the project, sings about rolling on the floor, wondering when his feelings for somebody will fade away ("How long 'til this heart isn't mine?"). Paired with a funky bass, "On the Floor" thrives in the erratic, making it so you can't help but move -- you may as well roll around on the ground with Hadreas. "Take this wildness away," he bursts while the track ascends into something of a hymn, and as he's known to make tender music about queer relationships, Perfume Genius captures that wretched drama of pining.
"Garden Song," Phoebe Bridgers
Isn't it a pretty image to close your eyes and envision a garden that's lush and blooming? Maybe it's a garden that hasn't been planted yet, but someday it'll exist in a patch of your yard and be full of life. Emo folk wonderkind Phoebe Bridgers sings about such a place, drawn from dreams and ideas about her hometown and the future that have evolved as she's grown older on "Garden Song." The track is stunning, Bridgers' wispy voice anchoring its simplicity with her narrative lyrics. From memories of childhood, she draws seeds to plant a vision for tomorrow -- and even as it sounds soft, there's weeds in that beauty forming vines around her changing values and the ideas of comfort she was once taught. Words like "visionary" and comparisons to names like Joni Mitchell and Joan Didion have been thrown at Bridgers, and songs like this, where she churns poetry out of quarter-life crises, is precisely why.
"DND," Polo G
Last year, 21-year-old Chicago drill rapper Polo G made a Hot 100 hit out of a song with a chorus that lays out in the verse, "We come from poverty, man, we ain't have a thing." Now, he's one of the hottest rising artists in the game, and his often mournful, earnest music is where he continues to explore the immense pain he and his community feel due to violence and economic hardship. "DND" sounds like it could be another hit with its piano track souped-up with a weaving, heavy beat, but even in a song relaying his quick ascension, he refuses to back away from how his experience continues to affect him even while sitting on top ("They killing kids / wonder why the summer's so cold"). It's equally moving as it is fierce hip-hop.
"Do U Wanna," Porches
NYC-based indie synth-pop artist Porches (AKA Aaron Maine) makes music that feels like it lives in the feeling of leeting out a heavy sigh and laughing to yourself after a long cry. Maine's production is liquidized and danceable, but he's constantly singing about navigating melancholy. He recently dropped "Do U Wanna," the lead single off this year's Ricky Music, which follows the internal struggle of who you are when you're surrounded by others and who you become when once everybody else goes home and you're left alone. The minimal, slow-jam-like production zones in on the song's intrapersonal lyrics ("I'm so happy I could cry") and makes you feel like the only one still on the dance floor. It lives in this moment, fading out before concluding what to do with these feelings. This is peak Porches.
"Who's Gonna Save U Now," Rina Sawayama
Japan-born, London-based recording artist Rina Sawayama is pop in 2020 at its finest. Rather than boxing herself into one sound, it's as if each song she releases is an experiment on genre, led by her command over songwriting, deciding between hard rock, nu metal, EDM, or disco, whatever she feels like that day. On "Who's Gonna Save U Now," off her debut album SAWAYAMA, she jumps into glam rock. It's one of the finest examples of the breadth of her bold vocals, comparable to Lady Gaga's guttural pipes. The song literally opens to the sound of fans chanting her name, and it's no gimmick that the guitars and percussion and produced to sound like she's performing in front of a stadium. The song is simply a glimpse into the future, and proof you should start cheering her name, too.
"She's There," Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Australian band Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever is the perfect example of the exuberance of jangly power pop. The way their buoyant guitars constantly play on wildly makes them capture that warm, unadulterated feeling of summer forever. "She's There," off their upcoming sophomore album Sideways to New Italy is another playful, romantically dramatic number from the group and it feels like there's a greater sense of bewilderment as each second unfurls. It's extremely urgent, the way hooks ripple into other hooks and the lyrics dwell on the missteps of a relationship, but, damn, urgency never sounded so delightful
"TKN", Rosalía (feat. Travis Scott)
"TKN" is music in 2020 at its most pollinated. Spanish force Rosalía, who has blown up in recent years for putting a modern flair on flamenco music, invites hip-hop star Travis Scott onto the track to cultivate an R&B, reggaeton, half-Spanish/half-English banger. The song, co-produced by Rosalía, sways with a dim but flirtatious, beat and the two artists' melodic voices are beguiling as they alternate, and unite with Scott trying his hand at crooning in Spanish. The hint of danger here makes sense, as the lyrics translate to the international pop star equating her crew to being as tight and loyal as a mob family, never breaking the code of "omertà," or the mafia's code of silence. They may not be accepting invitations for any new friends into their mob family right now, but you should absolutely crank this song up with your own because "TKN" is fierce and a great example of what music breaking borders sounds like.
"Walking in the Snow," Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels' RTJ4 couldn't be more pertinent to the times. They dropped their album early amidst the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted across the nation following the killing of George Floyd, and it's blaring protest music at its finest, reverberating themes of systemic racism and police brutality. The ferocious "Walking in the Snow" is at the center of it all, with loaded verses like, "You watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, 'I can't breathe' / And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV / The most you give's a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy." The track is haunting, given its timely lyrics, but the reality is this is a rallying cry for these atrocities and the half-hearted responses that follow to stop and prompt a revolution. You can hear it in El-P, Killer Mike, and featured artist Gangsta Boo's impassioned delivery, which is more than enough to convince you to rise up.
"Is There Something in the Movies?," Samia
NYC-based singer-songwriter Samia elegantly pulls apart the feeling of like you're not enough for the person you love, particularly in her experience when it's been traded for the pursuit of fame, on her song "Is There Something in the Movies?" The emerging artist is a force with her literary songwriting that has a way of piercing your heart -- and here, her words blare until they blister. There is a sense of betrayal in her voice as it crescendos, and a bite in her lyrics ("I left you in life cause you don't need my pen to embellish your noteworthy parts / And I only write songs about things that I'm scared of / So here, now you're deathless in art"), but the song is by no means cruel. It's graceful in all of its emotion as a ballad that'll stay pulsing in your capillaries, making your heart ache well after it's through.
There's a break in UK rapper slowthai's new single "ENEMY" that plays a recording that a young woman tweeted last year: "Slowthai, you have officially been canceled." The clip, and the intro featuring audio of The 1975's Matty Healy, came after the notoriously outspoken up-and-coming hip-hop artist had an altercation at the 2020 NME Music Awards when someone in the crowd yelled at him after he made a lewd joke when accepting his award from presenter Katherine Ryan. In fact, the entire track down to the title (sound it out) references the incident. It's also his notice to the world that he's not shutting up, no matter how unfiltered he is, anytime soon. He's been known to cause a ruckus before with his politicized raps about the state of the UK and shock factor stunts, but here, his quick grime style verses are reckless in the great way only he can delier. With a fire like this, let him run his mouth
"Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes," Soccer Mommy
Soccer Mommy, the stage name for Nashville-originated singer/guitarist Sophie Allison, is an indie rock gem whose songwriting is so heartfelt, it can't be understated. The singer largely turned to others for inspiration on her official debut Clean, writing spellbinding lo-fi songs, but on this year's Color Theory with songs like "Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes," she examined the darkness within herself that keeps her feeling blue. Allison's reverb-y guitars sound heavier than ever, drawing from '90s alt rock and mirroring the sick that she feels. That stomach-turning feeling Allison documents in the seven and a half minute track is of her prolonged grief over her mother who's suffered from terminal illness for years -- and her words about loss ("Loving you isn't enough / You'll still be deep in the ground when it's done") are so poignant you wish you could hold onto that big, yellow sun as the track fades out to quiet.
Sorry, the London-based group conceived out of the partnership of childhood friends Asha Lorenz and Louis O'Bryen, make indie rock music that sounds hot as hell. It's like most of their songs exists in a French film, sounding someone detached and full of ennui but pulsating with desire. That means the group sounds cool in nearly everything they do, although they let their icy exterior melt on their 925 duet "Perfect," about ceaselessly adoring someone even when they're not worth it. Their back-and-forth banter and the guitar's uneven pace is tense and dangerous. Although the relationship is unstable, you can get a sense in the song's unbridled devotion why the two return to each other's arms -- and why Sorry is a band worth adoring.
"Bad Decisions," The Strokes
There's a certain feeling you want from a Strokes song. It's like drunkenly moseying home from a night out with your friends where even if your personal life feel like shit, somehow everything still feels possible and all that matters is now. You got this from their original releases back when they were a buzzy New York rock band, and you get it from this track off their long-awaited album The New Abnormal. The melody of "Bad Decisions" mirrors Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself" and there's an '80s vibe throughout the song as frontman Julian Casablancas laments about ruining a relationship. It can be exciting when a reliable garage rock group experiments, but after years of almost exclusively festival dates and a prolonged new, full-length release, there's a comfort in hearing The Strokes return to what made them the icons in the first place.
"America," Sufjan Stevens
Indie savior Sufjan Stevens once told stories entrenched in Americana with records like his breakthrough Illinois (although, we are still waiting on those promised records for 48 more states). Now, on the epic closer "America" off his record The Ascension, he's singing, "Don't do to me what you did to America," as if it's a plea to the heavens above. At more than 12 and a half minutes, the song exhausts the United States' complex, disastrous history of exploitation and displacement in its frigid beat conjured up on a drum machine. Coming from someone who worships the American dream, or at least the mythology behind it, the song is explosive as Stevens forces himself to accept the America he believes in is no more -- or maybe never was -- and needs more work than ever ("I have loved you / I have grieved / I'm ashamed to admit it but I no longer believe"). It's something many Americans are wrestling with, or have for awhile, but hints that there's no reason we can't burn it down and start anew.
"Breathe Deeper," Tame Impala
Tame Impala brainchild Kevin Parker has become a pop polyglot, and his long-awaited album The Slow Rush is a perfectionist amalgamation of the psychedelic musician's career and sonic touchstones. The Aussie artist has come a long way from recording guitar heavy records isolated in the Outback to producing major rappers, and splashes of each facet of his taste are baked into his latest work. "Breathe Deeper" is one of the jazzier entries; it's over six minutes of R&B mixed with flashy keys that might've played in a trendy '70s cocktail lounge. Parker's been singing about his anxieties over existential questions forever, just like he's doing with passing time on The Slow Rush, but on this track he sounds at ease even as he begs us to believe in his self-assurance. Sometimes you just got to "breathe a little deeper," and here it sounds like that end result is delight.
"Invisible String," Taylor Swift
Who could detail a better metaphor of soul mates tied together with an invisible string than love song songwriting supreme Taylor Swift? She explores the idea on this track off her "indie" album folklore that was born out of quarantine, secrecy, and collaborations with The National's Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver -- but she does so applying all of her typical Swiftian tricks that make it simply beguiling. It's threaded together with narrative, literary references, and verses that pick at the lore around her own personal life like the stunning, "Cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart / Now I send their babies presents." Referencing the final line of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, she sings, "Isn't it just so pretty to think all along there was some invisible string tying you to me?" imploring the latest of her own iconic lines and an image so romantic it stays tied around your heartstrings.
"Bumming Me Out," THICK
Three-piece punk band THICK have been stomping on sexism with steel toe boots for as long as they've been coming up in the Brooklyn scene. They make abrasive tracks that tell mansplainers everywhere to shut the hell up, and loud pop punk songs that try to make light of how defeating young adulthood can feel. This all culminates on their track from their debut album, 5 Years Behind, "Bumming Me Out," which opens with the very appropriate whine, "Never knew I'd be so tired fighting for what I believe." You can feel how agonizing their uphill battles are in heir school girl harmonies, but as the guitars punch through, you can tell they're not worn out yet. The song is so catchy that it doesn't bum you out in the slightest -- THICK inspires you to join their fight instead.
"Dragonball Durag," Thundercat
Funk experimentalist Thundercat sounds like an absolute goofball on his song "Dragonball Durag" -- and it's amazing. Singing about a certain sexual prowess he feels while wearing his Dragonball Z printed durag, accompanied by a swanky beat, it almost sounds like it could be a song in one of the Lonely Island's Saturday Night Live shorts. That's meant as a compliment, though, because the '90s R&B-ish track, Kamasi Washington sax feature, and witty, playful lines make it sound so good. The renowned soul artist, singing about trying to smash despite being a gamer covered in cat hair, is somehow able to make corniness sexy. It must be the powers of the durag.
"Lost in the Country," Trace Mountains
In 2018, the lo-fi emo band LVL UP disbanded. It was a huge bummer, considering they were one of the best groups of the contemporary emo revival. Since then, members of the group went on to form their own projects -- and thank goodness they did because singer Dave Benton's latest work under the moniker Trace Mountains is the finest kind of muted indie rock. On "Lost in the Country," his album's title track, he takes you on the road as he chronicles the ups and downs of touring life as a musician and, well, life as is. The driving guitars wind like his van might've across the nation, and despite feeling lost ("And the soul in my heart is always hungry / And I'm lost in the deep wide country"), he sounds like he's in the midst of a journey of being found.
Waxahatchee (AKA Katie Crutchfield) makes indie folk that's so beautifully written and sounds so intimate, it makes you feel like you're sitting with her on her Kansas City porch, engaging in a deep conversation. "Lilacs" off her gorgeous album Saint Cloud is an example of the way her songwriting blossoms. It's a twangy, alt-country diddy and her trembling voice grows verbose as she wrestles with her own self-doubts and reminds herself how freeing it can be to fall for yourself ("And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won't end up anywhere good without you / I need your love too"). It's somehow lovelier than lilacs smell.
"After Hours," The Weeknd
The Weeknd's After Hours isn't just the best album from the Toronto R&B artist-turned-pop star in years, it's all of the luxurious makings of an iconic pop record, and just so happens to be bleak as fuck. On the title track and for much of the record, The Weeknd (AKA Abel Tesfaye) is back on his bullshit as a man full of ennui whose only source of relief is partying and women, who he subsequently treats as trash. "After Hours" elevates that pain to something cinematic, like he's finally coming around to be apologetic to his lover for their toxic relationship at the penultimate moment in a high-stakes thriller. There's an intensity to the production that starts out minimal and tight, but becomes balmy and vibrates with Tesfaye's crooning. The track is simply excellent, and based on how vulnerable he sounds as it fades out, if this were a movie, you can be sure he'd get the girl.
"Blue Comanche," Westerman
Will Westerman's voice could guide a meditation. It's as if whenever the London-based pop experimentalist sings, he creates a pool -- you know, the kind of spring where the water looks exceptionally blue and the surface resembles glass -- and you become submerged in it. One of his most entrancing releases off this year's Your Hero Is Not Dead is "Blue Comanche," where he invites us to "turn back around" before global warming obliterates the natural world. The way his voice turns to a hum in time with an acoustic guitar and synthesizers play, the song sounds quieting like twilight, as if it's anticipating the sunset of Earth as we know it. Music about the climate crisis has increasingly become a trend as the situation grows more dire -- but as many works sound apocalyptic or call for a state of emergency, Westerman's takes a loving step back to reflect on the bounty of beauty we can't risk losing.
"WHEN I GROW UP," Yaeji
Combining vibey hip-hop bass with experimental dance sounds derived from a global education growing across the US, Seoul, and in the Soundcloud community online, Korean-American electronic artist Yaeji makes music that you can imagine bumps through the speakers of a Brooklyn warehouse party full of fashion scene kids any given weekend. Luckily, songs like the new "WHEN I GROW UP" off her mixtape WHAT WE DREW 우리가 그려왔던 can mentally take you there right now. Her quick delivery of both Korean and English in a slinky, whispered rap is intoxicating enough, but the muted beat that loops her voice into an instrument is stylish and enjoyably cute. It's what you want out of a Yaeji song, and a great track to help turn your living room into a club when you're stuck dancing at home.
"Gospel for a New Century," Yves Tumor
In "Gospel for a New Century," Yves Tumor ushers in a future for a new kind of rock star. The Tennessee-raised, Italy-based artist is a known genre-defying experimentalist, but on this track off their excellent Heaven to a Tortured Mind, it's as if they're toying with the bounds of rock music and bringing it into a space where rock isn't dead anymore -- it's exceedingly interesting. The song is produced to sound like an oldie with Hendrix-like funkiness, but the way horns and percussion bounce off one another and Tumor's swanky drawl seduces, you can tell that this is the new sound.
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